It's always a small joy when PBS periodically unveils a new program that reminds us all what smart, engaging television is like. Prime example: "Make 'Em Laugh", a six part series that traces the evolution of comedy from several different angles and perspectives.
By far the most revealing episode thus far addresses the bold, courageous comics who in their times dared to stretch the definition of what constitutes "acceptable" humor, focusing on the edgy work of groundbreaking figures like Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin.
When one considers the sheer guts it takes simply to get up and try to amuse people, the fearlessness of a Lenny Bruce becomes even more striking. Although his persona emanated a sort of willful self-destruction, there was always a noble cause at stake: a freedom of comedic expression that's too easily taken for granted today.
Like the stark images of past discrimination against African- Americans and the gay community (brought back to haunt us by the riveting "Milk"), it seems unthinkable that less than half a century go, police were literally planted in nightclubs where Lenny performed, ready to disrupt his act and arrest him at the first utterance of a four-letter word. And he knew it, but went on regardless.
All the major stand-up talents that have emerged since that time stand on the shoulders of that brilliant, troubled man. And as "Make 'Em Laugh" astutely reminds us, comics everywhere are attuned to this, because they recognize that the fundamental fascination of comedy lies in how far it can be stretched into absurdity, even nihilism, and in discovering what happens when it bumps up against the opposing force of prevailing social mores. For most any comedian worth their salt or vinegar, the very essence of their craft lies at this tricky intersection.
Back to Carlin, whom I miss more with each passing day. By focusing on the power of words to affect us, George may have done more to advance the Lenny Bruce legacy than anyone else, with the possible exception of Richard Pryor. Carlin's gift lay in his indirection: his inspired language play planted the idea that demystifying all we could not say could actually help neutralize its power over us. George brought liberation, helping us free ourselves from the shackles of polite conversation. He took the curse off being naughty.
This brings me to "The Aristocrats" (2005), a documentary that lets us in on one of the most unique and (up to this point) untold jokes in history, one that only comedians know and reserve for themselves. Why? Because its humor lies not in the punchline, but in the body of the joke, and involves improvisation that busts through any and every taboo, including public defecation, bestiality and incest. Thus, it quickly arrives at that previously mentioned juncture where for many, humor stops and smut begins.
In the film, George Carlin does his own wonderful pass at the fabled joke, along with countless other funny men and women, including Sarah Silverman, Drew Carey, and Paul Reiser. With each different rendition, we sense the reverence and even affection the joke holds for the teller, at the same time fully appreciating why it has remained a professional secret for so long. It's almost like a form of mental calisthenic for comedians, forcing them into dark, outrageous places they don't ordinarily visit.
I myself found "The Aristocrats" thoroughly engrossing, and very, very funny, but in selecting titles for www.bestmoviesbyfarr.com, I usually overlay some final attempt at objectivity, asking myself: "I may love it, but will my audience?" It was surprising how many people I met who were turned off by the film, finding it repellent, repetitive, and overall, not a bit funny. Others completely embraced its anarchic spirit. So- feeling conficted, I hesitated adding "The Aristocrats" to my "go" list.
On recently screening the doc a second time, I now lean towards putting it on the site. My rationale is that whatever your personal reactions to its off-color nature, for those interested in how comedy works and how its practitioners think about what they do, "The Aristocrats" constitutes an invaluable and insightful piece of work. Added bonus: some twisted folks will also find it hilarious.
Before I push the button, tell me, dear readers: am I right or wrong?